The Coronavirus pandemic & the beginning of the new Chinese century

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The coronavirus pandemic, the first major global pandemic of modern times, has brought the world to a standstill. Some half a million people have tested positive for the virus; more than 35,000 people have died. About a third of the entire human race is now in some form of lockdown. We’ve never faced anything on this scale before.

As a consequence of the pandemic, the world now faces a global recession unlike any other in history. Airline travel has come to a halt; supply chains are being jeopardized and unemployment is rising to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

Democracy itself is under threat in parts of the world as leaders seize upon the pandemic to usurp power and authority. As many democracies struggle to deal with the crisis, the perception is growing that authoritarian regimes like China are better placed to handle such challenges than democratic ones.

Consider, for example, the way China and other countries have acted to contain the spread of the virus. Once it recognized the dangers, China quickly and effectively locked down whole cities. In Europe, India and even Malaysia, poor planning in implementing the lockdown resulted in the mass movement of people to their hometowns, villages and country homes.

Undoubtedly, events on this scale are going to have a profound impact on global politics; countries that can recover from the pandemic faster will have an edge over those who are less able to adapt.Nowhere will these changes be more deeply felt than in Asia. The geopolitical shifts that were already underway before the pandemic will accelerate even further.

The US, under President Trump, has been at best ambiguous about Asia. The 7th Fleet remains a powerful presence in the region, of course, but devoid of a credible overarching political, military and economic regional strategy, its usefulness is limited. The message that long-established relationships and international agreements mean little to Washington these days adds to regional angst.

After turning its back on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and recklessly undermining the global trading system with his ill-considered trade war against China, Asian governments appear to be coming to the conclusion that Trump’s America is no longer the steady and reliable ally it once was.

And, as China grows stronger, the US economy, with a staggering US$23 trillion debt, is increasingly set on an unsustainable path. Instead of building up its productive capacity and investing in infrastructure and new technology (as China has been doing for years), America is spending billions on wars that it cannot afford and which do little to really enhance its security and power.

While China wins hearts and minds by building high-speed trains, ports and communication networks abroad, America build military bases, carries out drone strikes and engages in needless confrontations with other countries. The contrast between the two powers keeps getting sharper and sharper with each passing year.

President Xi Jinping is also showing himself to be a far better global leader than the hopelessly self-centred American president. Nowhere does this show up more clearly than the way both countries are managing the coronavirus pandemic.

No doubt, China badly mishandled the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak, covering up the facts instead of alerting the global community to its dangers. However, it quickly rose to the challenge tackling the crisis at home with tough policies and reaching out to the hardest hit countries abroad by dispatching doctors and tons of medical equipment.

Contrast that to Washington’s response. Instead of heeding the advice of his own medical experts, Trump called it fake news and then deliberately used the pandemic to stoke anti-China sentiment by calling it the “Chinese” virus. In the meantime, the country that brags of the greatest (if not the most expensive) healthcare system in the world is struggling to cope with the crisis.

Unsurprisingly, Washington is now too preoccupied with the crisis to provide any kind of global leadership. When you consider that even tiny Cuba (despite suffering from a decades-long American-imposed embargo) could send doctors abroad to help other countries, the empty boast of American leaders that their nation is the “indispensable” superpower becomes all the more apparent.

At a time of global crisis, American leadership has been found wanting. As Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong warned recently, “countries may turn elsewhere if American leadership was not forthcoming in the effort to contain the virus.”

His warning comes too late. Historians might well come to consider this to be a turning point in world history, perhaps even the end of the American century and the beginning of the Chinese one.

Regardless, for many Southeast Asian nations the choice is already clear: China is the power to reckon with and all countries in the region must reconcile themselves to this strategic reality.

No doubt it will be a Faustian bargain along the lines of what the Communist Party of China (CPC) has offered its own people – economic security and prosperity in exchange for political subservience to the CPC.

The implications for the region will be vast. Having seen, for example, how democratic changes in government in both Sri Lanka and Malaysia adversely affected China’s interests in both countries, China will almost certainly be tempted to encourage neighbouring political elites to adopt more illiberal, technologically intrusive, political systems based on the Chinese governance model.

For those long accustomed to thinking in terms of liberal democracy as well as independence and national sovereignty in more classical terms, it will be a bitter pill to swallow. But with America now unreliable and inward-looking, options are limited. To survive, small countries on the peripheries of an emerging megapower will have to accommodate geopolitical realities as best they can.

The greatest challenge Southeast Asian nations will face in the new Chinese century is finding an acceptable balance between national sovereignty and Chinese suzerainty. Some will be more successful than others.

For Malaysia, Ketuanan Melayu politicians will certainly welcome support for illiberal governance structures while corruption and weak institutions will render the nation more vulnerable to PRC influence than its neighbours.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |31st March 2020]